Mike Spears' work shows experience while still being able to capture the magic of a particular moment. A firm believer in the fact that visual story telling is paramount when it comes to shooting the streets and travels, Spears has a knack for sharing stories about places he has been to and experienced with a special touch. Currently based in New York, the photographer shares with us some of his personal favourite works, subjects that he's drawn to shooting and some of his creative aspirations for the year.
"I’m American, born in Indiana USA. I grew up during school years mostly in Puerto Rico with a two-year stint in South Florida. I studied Film at Boston University. Graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1993 and lived there for several years post grad. I moved to NYC to work in the photo industry in 1999. Brooklyn waterfront has been home the entire time.”
Born in Bloomington, raised in Puerto Rico and now based in New York, we talked to Spears about how these geographical transitions have affected him as a photographer as well as an insight into its creative scenes. “After my first couple semesters at Boston University I became interested in studying photography. My dad had an Olympus OM1 with a 50mm Zuiko lens that was just collecting dust. I borrowed it for school and never gave it back and eventually started buying new lenses (zooms and fisheye) and external flashes (Visitor 283-285) and upgraded my camera body to the titanium bodied OM4T after a few years. Puerto Rico and Florida were influential in my first few years taking photos because when I would return for winter or summer break to visit my parents, I would follow my skateboarder friends around to document the tricks they were doing. I also would shoot street photos, beach photos, etc. One of my most iconic images is that black and white picture of the little kid riding by on the rims of his bike. That picture was taken in the housing projects of metro San Juan while visiting a skater friend who lived there. I could hear the kid riding towards me from the sound the metal rims were making against the street. I didn't shoot as consistently in the first 10 years I shot photos because it was before the digital era and I just didn't have the money for film and processing often enough.”
“After college I shot a lot of my DJ friends from the social scene I was involved in as well as a lot of drum and bass DJ's because I got really into that scene and even DJ'd DnB myself. Once I moved to New York and started photo assisting, it taught me to be more consistent technically as a photographer. Working for top commercial pro's taught me how to run a ”photo shoot" as opposed to just shooting on the go and I became more conscious of my camera settings and what they meant to the final image. I still find NYC inspiring. It’s just got so much activity and life flowing through it its hard not to see the potential for interesting images everywhere you turn. It can be difficult to stay motivated because the weather is crap for a good part of the year and life can be a grind here but thats no excuse, just an obstacle to overcome.”
“I haven't been back to Indiana much in adulthood to be honest. Bloomington - where my parents met at university has a photo scene. It’s a progressive college town and Indiana University's school of journalism is highly rated but I haven't really been back to Indiana much. Boston's creative scene was good, it was where I first shot a lot of bands like Fugazi, Quicksand, BDP, Rollins Band, and countless more at iconic venues like the Rathskeller and The Channel. I also shot a few skaters who went on to become pro's like Jahmal Williams who is still a friend to this day.” Spears also mentioned Puerto Rico as the place where he’s had the most special connection to with its good light and warm, beautiful people. “It’s inspiring and I know my way around there. I also shoot the most when I am there. Beauty abounds.”
“Thrasher Magazine, Flipside Vinyl fanzine and Maximum Rock’n’Roll fanzine were probably subliminally responsible for influencing my early photo aesthetic. I loved looking at skateboarders and live band photographs. I had this special edition Maximum Rock’n’Roll photo zine with all live band photos called "if life is a bowl of cherries than what am I doing in the pit". It had pictures of every band that meant anything to me at the time from Minor Threat to MDC to Bad Brains. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged from pursuing creative endeavours growing up, but I didn't get the idea to take photos until University. In the past (pre internet smart phone era) if you wanted take photos you had to buy a camera and film and get your pictures printed because there was no other way to view them. I didn't have enough money for any of that. I have only a handful of photos of myself from my rebellious teenage years because I only had two or three friends who even had cameras that I recall. There's a few pictures of me skateboarding, one of me playing drums, and a few of me in the pit at punk rock shows at the Cameo theatre in Miami, but otherwise barely any photographic evidence that that era of my life even happened."
Having travelled to many different parts of the world, Spears mentions some of his favourite of his most memorable places to shoot. "I loved southeast Asia - Thailand and Cambodia. Got great pics there. Colourful and lively. Peru was amazing too. It was like another planet. I love the Dominican Republic. Been there several times and always get great pics. Mexico too. I like Latin America because I speak Spanish which facilitates communication and makes basic human connections easier. Also my neighbourhood in Brooklyn is fairly iconic. It’s classic New York industrial. Very picturesque with the East River and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.”
“When I shoot street and travel, visual storytelling is paramount. I’m a firm believer in the idea of the decisive moment. In my more abstract conceptual photos I try and convey more metaphoric ideas. In my travel photos I try and convey the sense of wanderlust. I try and respect the culture of wherever I go and am careful not to eroticise or fetishise too much. Its a fine line to walk.”
“When I shoot street and travel, visual storytelling is paramount. I’m a firm believer in the idea of the decisive moment. In my more abstract conceptual photos I try and convey more metaphoric ideas. In my travel photos I try and convey the sense of wanderlust. I try and respect the culture of wherever I go and am careful not to eroticise or fetishise too much. Its a fine line to walk.” Spears also has a brilliant project titled ‘Riverside’; a 15-year plus documentation of life outside his apartment window in Brooklyn. When I moved to this neighbourhood in 1999 gentrification had sort of already started. There was a luxury condo or two that were already newly constructed and inhabited. But before that for the most part this was a de industrial area. That was its allure to the first generation of artists who came to this neighbourhood. Vito Acconci (RIP), REVS and the couple from Cutie and the Boxer amongst them. In 1999 after 6pm this neighbourhood was a ghost town. There wasn't one deli, restaurant, bar, nothing. You had to make the walk up the hill to Brooklyn heights to shop or eat. I had a 180 degree panoramic view from the Brooklyn Bridge across the east river all the way to the Williamsburg bridge and beyond. About four years ago a luxury condo was erected where the empty lot behind my building was thus blocking about 60 percent of the riverview. In a city like Brooklyn there’s no stopping the housing development. I am lucky I still have a view at all. I yearn for the days when you could stroll the streets alone but now the tourists and the nouveau riche have come in hordes because they see the same thing that I saw and the pioneers before me saw in the neighbourhood many years ago. All we can count on is change for better or worse. There’s not many starving artists left around here not that there's much nobility in that anymore either.”
With Spears’ enigmatic body of work, we asked the photographer about the subjects he photographs, particular favourites from his body of work as well as influences. “I try and inject comedy, beauty, abstraction, surrealism, psychedelia and arousal in my images. I often use bold colour purposefully and expressively. I like the female form and have backed away from shooting nudes as often as I used to but it still attracts me as a subject. I shot a nude couple for the first time this year and loved the images I got. I like travel portraiture although its not my strongest suit but its exciting to be able to gain trust on the fly and produce an iconic travel portrait. My tuxedo cat Pepita is my muse lately. She's a rowdy lil rascal and she is very photogenic. I have had her for 3 years. She helps break up the doldrums of everyday life at my home studio. My favourite image is probably the street photo of the butcher carrying a slaughtered pig on his shoulders through downtown Manhattan wearing a New York Fucking City T-shirt. It just embodies the decisive moment and the experience of being a working class citizen of NYC who is doing what he has to do to make ends meet. He is making eye contact with the camera which creates tension and the slaughtered animals limp corpse is grotesque in a very beautiful way. The balance of the composition is perfect and the T-shirt puts it over the top.”
“Nobuyoshi Araki is who I've wished I could be for years. When I first saw his work in college it made me realise the artistic potential of photography. He is provocative by definition. I also love Wolfgang Tillmans, William Eggleston, Ren Hang, Glen Friedman, Mary Ellen Mark, Cindy Sherman, Vivian Maier, Weegee, Spike Jones, Anton Corbjin, Man Ray. I am also very inspired by female art because as a man its hard for me to detach from the male gaze when portraying the female form. Females posses a more delicate sensibility. On Instagram I love Rachel Martin, Elizabeth Huey, Amalia Angulo, Frances Waite, Leah Dworkin.” Spears will be heading back to Puerto Rico over the holidays with plans on doing a picture project called ‘regrowth’. “The island was devastated by a category 4 hurricane in September and much of the islands vegetation was decimated. Now a few months later that vegetation is growing back and I believe visually and metaphorically this should make for an interesting and cathartic photo series. Also next year I plan on having a solo photo exhibit at my studio space and also trying to curate an art show with some of my favourite local artists.”